I understand that “Living” started over a drink shared between yourself, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Stephen Woolley.
As you say, I met Ishiguro out, with Stephen Woolley. They were old friends, and they’re film nerds. They spent that evening challenging each other to know nerdish facts, about films generally but often about British films, black-and-white British films from about 1930 to about 1960. But at the end of the evening, Ishiguro and his wife, having been whispering, came out and said, “We know what your next film should be.” And I said, “Well, when you’re ready, let me know.” And then, later, Stephen rang me and said, “This is the plan.”
They both felt you’d be perfect for the lead role in a remake of “Ikiru,” but how did you feel about that assessment? One reason I personally responded to “Living,” I felt, is that I grew up in England with grandparents who always considered discussing their declining health or personal struggles to be “a bit of a bore,” as you say in the film. Williams epitomizes a very British kind of stoicism.
When talking about the character, most of my discussions were with Oliver Hermanus, who has so brilliantly directed the film. He’s South African, and I don’t know whether that informed [his attitude toward] Williams. I can’t guarantee that, but I think it probably does help. We had a lot of discussions. And it was very interesting for me to talk to somebody from another culture about, like you say, [that characteristic of] your grandparents or my father. My father was a very reserved man, who would aim to never make unnecessary noise or fuss. And, when he was dying, he tried to die with as much dignity and without being too much trouble as he possibly could. So, I’m no stranger to this. And I kind of admire it. I know—probably, now, in psychiatric circles—they would say it’s a disastrous way to conduct your life. But, on the other hand, you can’t help but think, sometimes, “Wow. That’s something to pull off.”
There’s much about Williams to be admired, though I ached for him as well. The complexity of this character is what made “Ikiru” so rich, and I have to imagine it was rewarding to pour yourself into Ishiguro’s translation of this story. One dialogue in particular, between Williams and Margaret, takes place in a pub. It’s a tremendously affecting scene. What are your memories of filming it?
Well, we worked on it quite a lot. I wanted to emphasize his grief about the loss of his wife, and the length of his widowerhood. I thought that was important, in his dealings with Margaret. I worked very, very hard. I prepared painstakingly and, by the time we got there, I could do it 25 different ways in my sleep.